16 April 2010

The Multitasking Brain: A Next Level Trait?

Human brains can consciously focus on only one task at a time. But unconsciously, the human brain is working on a multitude of tasks. New research from INSERM in Paris suggests that the two hemispheres can function independently and simultaneously -- even in normal, whole-brain persons -- and the results of both hemisphere's processes can become conscious, with motivation.
Scientists at the National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Paris wondered what happens when a person is asked to do two jobs at once. To find out, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of 16 male and 16 female volunteers, all aged 19 to 32, and all right-handed, as they simultaneously performed two related tasks. The volunteers were offered a monetary reward that reduced if they made errors.

The tasks were to match upper case letters and to match lower case letters, switching back and forth between the two tasks. Rewards for each task were calculated separately and depended on the numbers matched without error. The researchers, neuroscientists Sylvain Charron and Etienne Koechlin, found that when the volunteers tackled only one task, both halves of the medial frontal cortex worked on it, but when they tackled both tasks simultaneously, the left side of the frontal cortex corresponded to one of the tasks and the right side corresponded to the other, with the two sides working independently. Results improved as the monetary reward increased, and there was no significant difference in the results of the men and women volunteers. _Physorg
Notice that conscious awareness was switching back and forth between the two hemisphere's ongoing tasks.

The big surprise was that there was no significant difference between men's and women's performance. Generally, women are thought to be better multi-taskers due to the thicker corpus callosum connecting the two hemisphere's in a woman's brain.

This is not the same thing as simultaneous awareness of multiple complex phenomena, since awareness in the experiment was switched back and forth between tasks. In order to achieve a multiple awareness without attention switching, it would be necessary to incorporate multiple phenomena into a single awareness -- as sub-components. That would be analogous to the "chunking" of discrete items into compound items for improved recall.

The research suggests that the brain can only track two independent tasks simultaneously, since it possesses only two hemispheres.

Unconscious monitoring of multiple phenomena takes place constantly -- sleeping or waking. The unconscious mind switches between monitoring tasks based upon the relative salience of the monitored phenomena, and upon the receptive state (unconscious motivation) of the brain at any given time.

Next level humans will train to improve their capacity for multi-tasking, beginning before adolescence and continuing throughout their lives. An expanded awareness is only one of the distinguishing characteristics of next level humans, but an important one in terms of survival within the potentially hazardous environments which next levels will frequent.

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